A rugged patch of land is being transformed into a 41-unit affordable housing development on the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico.

Scheduled to be completed around May, the project will connect residents to the nearby New Mexico Rail Runner train station, making The Domingo Housing Project a rare rural transit-oriented development. “A lot of people use the station to go to work, school, doctors’ appointments,” says developer Greta Armijo, executive director of the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority.

Located within walking distance of the new housing, the train station is used by many of the pueblo’s artisans who journey an hour each day to Santa Fe to sell their turquoise jewelry and pottery.

The pueblo has a population of a little over 5,000 people but only 500 homes within the community, according to Armijo. The new, $10.2 million development will go a long way to meet the community’s housing needs. It’s about two miles from the pueblo’s main village and will be a mix of single- and two-story units in a style specific to the Santo Domingo Pueblo. The homes respect the tribe’s historical preference for density and shared community spaces while placing residents in close proximity to needed amenities.

“It will have a similar layout to the historic village,” says Armijo, who has led the housing authority for five years. “It’s culturally significant.”

In addition, the housing complex is close to the recently reopened Santo Domingo Indian Trading Post. A walking and bike path designed by local artisans is also in the works. Project supporters hope the effort will make the area a destination for visitors. It would be a source of economic development, notes Joseph Kunkel, executive director of the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, an organization that works on culturally and environmentally sustainable development with American Indian and other indigenous communities nationwide.

“You have all the components that potentially make up a community, and, if done correctly, the community could flourish,” he says. “This affordable rental project has the ability to turn renters into potential future homeowners. It’s a unique opportunity for the community and tribe.”

Kunkel, who recently completed an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, assisted in the planning and development of the project. The program partners early-career architects with local community development organizations.

“By putting affordable housing next to public transportation, you’re giving those individuals access to Albuquerque and Santa Fe for jobs, education, healthy food, access off the rez,” Kunkel says. “It could become a precedent for other tribes that have access to public transportation. This is showing why it’s important to think about planning and where you strategically develop housing.”

The Domingo Housing Project is being financed largely with low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) awarded by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA). The credits, which were syndicated by Raymond James Tax Credit Funds (RJTCF), are providing approximately $8.4 million in equity.

“These 41 units will provide much-needed and affordable housing to the Santo Domingo tribal community and exemplifies the mission and value of the LIHTC program,” says Ben Shockey, acquisitions manager at RJTCF, which has a strong track record of providing housing credit equity to tribal communities.

To better understand the intricacies of housing finance, Armijo and her team partook in the Tribal Housing Excellence Academy, an initiative launched by Rural Community Assistance Corp. (RCAC) and Native Capital Access (NCA) to provide technical assistance to and coach Native American communities in best practices for developing housing.

“Our biggest message is that they need to be accessing resources they haven’t yet tapped into,” says Eileen Piekarz, rural development specialist at RCAC. “Some organizations in Indian country have been successful in reaching out for tax credits, HOME funds, Federal Home Loan Bank grants, or even just conventional loans, but there are so many Native communities that haven’t used those funding sources. Our pitch is to take advantage of those opportunities they haven’t yet gone after.”

The Santo Domingo group learned about LIHTCs and won an allocation from the MFA on its first attempt. It also secured funding from other sources, including the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund, the Primero loan program, and federal HOME funds from the state agency, says Isidoro “Izzy” Hernandez, the MFA’s deputy director of programs.

Assembling the funding has been the most challenging part of the project, according to Armijo. “You’re trying to throw a hook out into a big ocean and see who’ll [bite] on your project,” she says.

Accessing capital

Dave Castillo knows the problem well. He recalls a story about a tribal official who once asked, “How is it that the United States can put a man on the moon but not a bank on an Indian reservation?”

Accessing financing is a big hurdle for many tribal housing authorities, says Castillo, CEO of NCA, a Tempe, Ariz.–based nonprofit that helps meet the community and economic development needs of Native American communities by providing them with technical assistance and financial capital.

The difficulty accessing capital is “due largely to a lack of precedence, institutional knowledge, relationships, and administrative infrastructure all vital to financing transactions,” Castillo says. “Trust land has limited use as collateral. Conventional bank standards are inflexible, and networking with equity investors is constrained by geographic, social, and business isolation.”

Generally, there exists some misunderstanding and mistrust between tribal government and business sectors, Castillo says.

He praises the Domingo Housing Project, which received gap financing from NCA.

“If more tribes modeled their affordable housing projects after this one, I believe financial institutions would flock to Indian Country,” Castillo says. “The Domingo Housing Project and the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority as the developer represent the ideal affordable housing development project in Indian Country. It meets a critical housing need and is forward-thinking in its transit-oriented design.”

The development has received strong support from the appointed tribal leadership, and the integration of decision making with an active board of commissioners reflects a true community-based effort, according to Castillo.

“Most important, Indian housing professionals leading the project have shown extreme diligence throughout the development process, demonstrating almost flawless execution of industry best practices,” he says.

The Sokaogon Chippewa Housing Authority has transformed an old motel into affordable housing in Wisconsin.
Ryan Siemers Photography and Design The Sokaogon Chippewa Housing Authority has transformed an old motel into affordable housing in Wisconsin.

LIHTC investors show their interest

Several states, such as Arizona, California, and North Dakota, have tribal set-asides in their qualified allocation plans (QAPs) that spell out how they award housing credits. This helps Native American communities access needed LIHTCs.

In New Mexico, the MFA doesn’t have a separate set-aside, but it awards points to projects that involve qualified tribal organizations. However, many states emphasize projects in urban centers with points for walkability and proximity to services. “It’s difficult for rural projects, especially tribal developments, to meet those requirements,” says Elizabeth Glynn, CEO of Travois, a Kansas City, Mo.–based consulting firm focused on promoting housing and economic development for American Indian and native Alaskan and Hawaiian communities.

Construction costs are also a big challenge. The remote location of some Native American developments makes it difficult to obtain workers, and the cost of materials can be higher than usual.

The good news is that LIHTC investors have been very open to projects on tribal land. Travois sees four or more offers on every development, according to Glynn. The firm recently worked with the Sokaogon Chippewa Housing Authority, which completed the Sokaogon Supportive Residences near Crandon, Wis., in 2016.

The housing authority turned an abandoned motel that had been owned by the tribe into needed affordable apartments. “It’s a great example of how tribes have used their resources in an innovative way,” Glynn says. “It was a major renovation.”

The motel had been largely vacant for 10 years, with the tribe occasionally using it in an emergency to house people who needed a place to stay, says Jeff Ackley, executive director of the housing authority and tribal administrator.

He knew that, with some work, the building could find a better and more permanent use. “Hotel rooms are typically small,” Ackley says. “We had to figure out how we could squeeze in 24 units and make it a comfortable living space.”

He and his team rehabbed the property and added an extension to the building so all the units would have full-size bathrooms and kitchens. It serves veterans, tribal members, and nontribal members earning no more than 30%, 50%, and 60% of the area median income. The approximately $2 million was financed largely with LIHTCs. RBC Capital Markets—Tax Credit Equity Group was the syndicator, providing nearly $1.6 million in housing credit equity, and Travois served as the LIHTC consultant and architect.

Additional financing included a $414,000 Affordable Housing Program grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago through member Bay Bank, which also provided bridge financing during construction.

Although Sokaogon Supportive Residences is a small development, it was still a complex deal. “It was an acquisition–rehab project, but it was also an adaptive-reuse project, and there was a portion that was new construction,” says John Galfione, vice president at RBC.

Fortunately, Ackley’s housing authority was able to bring different resources to the table.

“It targets a population that’s not always easy to serve, especially in more-rural areas,” says Galfione. “It brings together a mix of veterans, disabled, and homeless households.”

The building is easily accessible from the main road and is located near a health clinic, a recreation center, and other amenities.

“It’s a beneficial transformation of an old, unused building,” Galfione says.